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Monday, March 7, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96) was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote.  Her father was a well-known Congregationalist minster who preached against dueling, drinking and Unitarianism, which denied the Trinity.  She was a well-loved child, despite the fact that her father did not hide the fact that he wished Harriet had been a boy.  Her mother died when she was five and, despite her father's remarrying, lost her stepmother at 24.  During her youth, the writings of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott piqued her interest in literature. 

At the time of Harriet's birth, slavery was legal in Connecticut though strongly condemned by Lyman Beecher.  In the early 1830s, the family moved to Cincinnati upon Beecher's acceptance of a position as head of the new Lane Theological Seminary.  While in Cincinnati, Harriet first encountered slavery, which was legal across the Ohio river in Kentucky, and was horrified at the marketing of slaves as commodities.  The images she saw never left her and would be recreated in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1836 Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a professor of religion at her father's seminary who, despite not being very handsome, was very intelligent.  The couple had seven children between 1836 and 1850, when the couple moved to Maine where Calvin Stowe accepted a position at Bowdoin College.  In addition to her earlier mentioned novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Dred (1856), about a slave rebellion,  The Minister's Wooing (1859), and Lady Byron Vindicated (1870), which detailed Lord Byron's infidelities.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) is the conception of a series of visions Stowe received from God.  She had never traveled south but was able to describe vividly the lives of slaves on plantations because of her interaction with free and enslaved blacks while in Cincinnati.  Upon publication, the novel sold out immediately, and eventually sold over 150,000 copies in its first seven months.  The book received praise from as far away as Russia from Leo Tolstoy, who view it as literature in its highest form.  Critics gave the book mixed, politically charged reviews.  Stowe received much hate mail, one of which contained the severed ear of a disobedient slave.  Nevertheless, the influence of the work is undeniable, as characterized by Abraham Lincoln's only half-jocular supposed greeting when meeting Stowe for the first time in 1862:  "So this is the little lady who started this big war."

Source:  Runaway to Heaven by Johanna Johnston

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